By Thomas Mitchell
Shortly after state health officials confirmed the first presumptive case of the coronavirus — dubbed COVID-19 — in Nevada this past week, Gov. Steve Sisolak issued an emergency regulation regarding insurance coverage for testing and treatment of the rapidly spreading virus.
State law gives the governor the power in emergency situations to make, amend and rescind regulations in response to the emergency. Customarily one thinks of such things as calling out the National Guard to prevent looting or other problems after a national disaster.
In this case the Commissioner of Insurance Barbara Richardson made a finding that an emergency affecting the health and safety of the public exists and that adoption of an emergency regulation was appropriate.
What Sisolak did was attempt to avert potential adverse financial impact for those who carry health insurance. We highly recommend the governor keep a close eye on the effects of
his order lest it have unintentional adverse affects on the availability of testing and potential vaccines or treatments for the disease. Dictating the price of things in the marketplace has been known to deter availability of goods and services when adequate compensation is not forthcoming.
There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence over the years that so-called anti-price-gouging laws merely limit the supply of necessary goods and services in a crisis.
For example, according to the American Institute for Economic Research, in 2005 a Kentucky man took time off from his job, bought 19 power generators, rented a truck and drove to hurricane-ravaged Mississippi intending to sell the generators at twice the price he paid to cover his costs and make a profit. Police confiscated his generators for price gouging, held him for four days and kept the generators in police custody. Those who urgently needed them and would have gladly paid the asking price suffered in the dark instead.
“This pre-emptive emergency regulation should give Nevadans confidence to continue taking preventative measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 as well as seeking necessary medical services and prescriptions without fear of higher than normal costs,” Sisolak was quoted as saying in a press release accompanying the emergency declaration. “Protecting Nevadans is my top priority, and adopting this emergency regulation is a critical piece of our broader plan to anticipate and prepare for the potential impacts of COVID-19.”
The press release said the order prohibits a health insurance company from imposing an out-of-pocket charge for an office, urgent care center or emergency room visit for the purpose of testing for the virus. “Additionally, the regulation prohibits insurers from charging Nevadans for the COVID-19 test itself or an immunization as one becomes available and further requires coverage for off-formulary prescription drugs if a formulary drug is not available for treatment,” the press release says.
Sounds confiscatory. If companies are prohibited from recouping their expenses for services provided, how readily available will those services be?
The regulation further requires health insurance companies to pro-actively provide information on available benefits, options for medical advice and treatment through telehealth systems and ways to prevent exposure to the virus. With only a few cases in Nevada so far such measures may be premature.
There have been no reports of insurance price gouging due to the virus that we are aware of, which is what the governor’s emergency order appears to be intended to stave off.
We suggested the commissioner of insurance and health officials keep a close watch on events as they develop to assure these shackles on the free market do not interrupt the availability of necessary services and thus create the opposite effect of what the governor intends.
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Thomas Mitchell is a former newspaper editor who now writes conservative/libertarian columns for weekly papers in Nevada. You may email Mitchell at email@example.com. He blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.